Across the Street: the Stigma of Self-harm

| January 17, 2019

“You go across the street for attention, down the street for results.”

At first, I didn’t catch what my coworker was saying. It was near the end of a slow shift, and I hadn’t been listening closely. Seeing my blank look, he repeated himself – while miming slash marks across his wrist and down his forearm.

When I asked why he would say something like that, my coworker just looked vaguely uncomfortable.

He shrugged his shoulders, not quite meeting my eyes. “I was bored.”

Bored. A teenage boy decided to make a joke about self-harm and suicide because he was bored.

The mentality that self-harm and suicide are something to be made fun of is something I have often come across. People mock self-harmers because it is easy – or because they themselves are just trying to fill some time.

There are many misconceptions when it comes to self-harm. In order to begin dealing with this issue, people need to understand what it is and how they can best help themselves or others who are self-harming.

Self-harm, or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), is the act of “deliberate self-inflicted harm that isn’t intended to be suicidal”, according to the American Psychological Association. Though most people probably think of cutting when they think of self-harm, anything else causing pain to oneself is considered a form of self-injury.

Additionally, many people will assume that self-harmers are social outcasts or people who are dealing with severe mental health problems such as borderline personality disorder.

However, self-harm is not an uncommon problem. Between one-third and one-half of adolescents in the United States have performed some kind of self-injury, according to a journal article in the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

The saying my coworker used is a common one, and it illustrates how lots of people think of self-harm: as the mark of someone who is either seeking attention (“across the street”) or suicidal (“down the street”).

However, according to an article by U.S. News, self-harm “serves as a method of emotional regulation: People use it to cope with sadness, distress, anxiety, anger and other intense feelings or, on the flipside, emotional numbness.”

Self-injury is a coping mechanism, albeit an unhealthy one, and many people who are bullied turn to self-harm to cope. A self-harmer might not necessarily have a deep-seated mental health condition, but they are still struggling to cope with the challenges before them. And instead of turning to their friends or family, they hurt themselves instead.

Though self-harm is not necessarily a precursor to suicidal attempts, one study found that nearly 70 percent of teenagers who self-harm have made at least one suicide attempt.

It might sound like a silly rhyme, but the message goes much deeper. Shaming people and making a joke out of self-harm increases the stigma around this phenomenon. These jokes discourage self-harmers from being open and honest about their habits, which can prevent them from seeking help.

Self-harm and suicidal tendencies are no joke, and they should not be treated as such. Making light of people who engage in self-injury only increases the stigma around this condition.

The ease with which people mock self-harm displays a lack of empathy for people who are hurting themselves and shows just how ill-informed people are about this condition. Seek to understand and support rather than mock and judge, because derision does nothing to help those who are struggling with self-harm.